Enthusiasm was palpable among voters at polling booths here on Saturday as the maiden District Development Council (DDC) polls and panchayat by-elections, the first democratic exercise in Jammu and Kashmir since it was reorganised as a union territory last year, was underway.
With the abrogation of Article 370, several communities like West Pakistan refugees, Valmikis and Gurkhas are now eligible to vote in local elections, purchase land and apply for jobs in Jammu and Kashmir, and besides these, they can also contest elections.
On August 5, 2019, the Centre revoked the special status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and bifurcated it into UTs of Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. Since then, the government has introduced several laws, including those related to land and domicile status.
"We have heard the words equality, justice and liberty, and today we are feeling the true meaning of these words," Sujati Bharti, a young voter from the West Pakistan refugee community, said standing in a queue outside a polling station at Kot Ghari in Akhnoor block in the outskirts of Jammu.
Read: Amid tight security, polling underway for first phase of DDC elections in J&K
She thanked the Centre for its decision to do away with the special status, saying members of her community were exercising their right to vote in local elections after 70 years.
Bharti said she felt liberated as she stood in queue with permanent residents. Justice has finally been granted after an over seven-decade-long struggle, she added.
Except for parliamentary elections, these refugees, were, till last year, barred in Jammu and Kashmir from voting in assembly, panchayat and urban local body polls.
Bishan Dass (67), another voter from the community, said he did not want to remember the past and instead, pinned hopes on a bright future in which his grandchildren could get jobs without moving outside.
"We feel empowered. Earlier nobody used to come to our places to seek votes. Today, every candidate came thrice knocking our doors," he said, flashing a victory sign.
Most of the West Pakistan refugees, after migrating from Pakistan during the Partition, settled in R S Pura, Akhnoor, Samba, Hiranagar and Jammu. Currently, there are over 1.5 lakh refugees in the Union territory.
In the first leg of the eight-phased DDC elections, 43 constituencies will go to polls -- 25 in Kashmir and 18 in Jammu. Voting began at 7 am and will end aat 2 pm. Out of a total of 1,475 candidates, 296 are contesting the first phase -- 172 in the Kashmir valley and 124 in the Jammu region.
By-elections to 12,153 panchayat constituencies are also taking place along with the DDC polls. Out of these, 11,814 are in the Kashmir valley and the rest 339 in Jammu.
A total of 2,644 polling stations have been set up and there are around 7 lakh electors for this phase -- 3.72 lakh in Kashmir and 3.28 lakh in Jammu.
In view of the Covid-19 pandemic, the government has made special arrangements to ensure guidelines and standard operating procedures are adhered to.
Tight security arrangements have also been made in and around the polling stations to ensure peaceful voting.
At the Purmandal block in Samba district, voters started queuing up outside polling stations in Khara village much before the scheduled start of the polling.
"This election is meant to strengthen grassroots democracy and ensure development at village level. We are voting with focus on the candidates who can provide us better facilities," 25-year-old Ashok Kumar said.
He said people in the area were facing tremendous hardships due to the scarcity of water and underdeveloped roads.
"We have to decided to vote for a DDC candidate who can be accessed easily and can address our day-to-day problems," Kumar said.
Chuni Lal, another voter, said they heard all the 10 candidates in the fray during campaigning and accordingly made up his mind.
He said he was hopeful that the maiden DDC elections would strengthen the Panchayati Raj system after successful conclusion of the Block Development Council elections, and also paves way for early Assembly elections in the Union Territory.